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Seven ways I want my kids to learn about God.

When I consider how I want my kids to learn about God, a creation metaphor seems appropriate. All that Genesis noise and bustle and energy - so great it spilled over seven days - may remind parents of the small whirling dervishes that cavort through their homes. God's ongoing creation could be seen as the divine response to a child's wonder at sunset and sunrise, parakeet and python, waterfall and wave.

"Wow," says the child, "do it again!"

God does it again. Again God finds it good.

I write this creation metaphor as much for parents as for the professional catechists who also play a part in children's faith formation. Now that the church takes seriously the role of parents as primary religious educators, we need to take ourselves seriously, too. Psychologists estimate that even the best institutions exert no more than 10 percent of the parents' influence in shaping attitudes and values.

The Good News came first in the person of Jesus, not in a book. It continues to echo through human parents. From our touch, our response to the infant's needs, our laughter and wide embrace, the child learns the trust in humans essential to faith in God. As human parents, we co-create with God long after conception, throughout the child's life.

However, the creation metaphor breaks down if we interpret it too literally. Children are not blank slates, but "messengers from a world we once deeply knew but have long since forgotten," writes Alice Miller in The Drama of the Gifted Child (Basic Books, 1981). Father Richard Rohr, O.F.M., an author and lecturer, tells a story that gives flesh to that quote. A 4-year-old was anxious to be alone with his newborn brother. After he shooed his parents out of the nursery, he bent over the crib and whispered urgently to the baby, "Quick! Tell me where you came from. I'm beginning to forget already."

In that spirit of mystery and awe, we begin.

1. Let there be reverence

From recent research on the spirituality of children, we have learned that our attitude toward children must be filled with reverence. Two must-reads for anyone involved in this enterprise are Sofia Cavalletti's The Religious Potential of the Child (Liturgy Training Publications, 1992) and Robert Coles' The Spiritual Life of Children (Houghton Mifflin, 1990). Through 25 years of work with children, Cavalletti found repeatedly that children knew things about God no one had told them. Coles, a Harvard professor of medicine, felt humbled before children's "exquisitely private moments of awe and wonder and alarm and apprehension."

Thus, the whole creative process of learning about God evolves in an atmosphere that respects the child's privacy and dignity. Children may not spout theology, but they can enjoy a union with God and a quest for meaning that characterize our finest mystics and deepest thinkers. One little boy hearing the story of the crucifixion for the first time, asked in awe, "Then why do you call it Good Friday?"

His mother affirmed the truth underlying his question by quoting T. S. Eliot, the poet who wrote, "in spite of that, we call this Friday good." "I don't give a fig if he understands Eliot," she explained. "I'm just introducing him to the company of his peers.

2. Let there be family

Children's first and best learning about God occurs in the context of family. That may sound arrogant, solet's qualify. It doesn't mean the psalmist's idea of family, the olive branches placidly surrounding the table. Nor the hygienic, sentimentalized notion of family we associate with "The Brady Bunch." It means family unsanitized, with all its warts.

Our first parents were formed from the earth: yup, the mud, slime, primordial ooze. As Thomas Moore points out in Care of the Soul (HarperCollins, 1992), the word Adam means "red earth." "Our own families recapitulate this mythic origin ... by being close to the earth, ordinary, a veritable weed patch of human foibles."

From this muck can emerge the most fragrant violets. And from the chaos of family life can spring religious faith. Children learn far more from experiencing relationships than from studying doctrine. Father Andrew Greeley's research on the religious imagination confirms that parents as sacraments (swallow hard) can bring children to a high "grace scale," or a positive, hope-filled attitude toward life as a gift. Before children meet the larger faith community, they learn community" at home: sorting laundry, negotiating TV channels, buying groceries with a fair distribution of treats.

For children whose concept of prehistoric time is anything pre-CD-ROM, Jesus and his friends lived a long time ago. Before they understand the church as a community of memory, where Jesus' words and deeds are kept alive, they must first know family memories. They crave the stories of their parents' first date, Grandma's feud with the landlord, the day they were born. Only then can they appreciate people who sing together: "All people here who remember Jesus, brother and friend. All who hold to his memory, all who keep faith in the end."

Jesus himself is a perfect example of a child learning faith from his family. He had his mother's habit of reflection, and his familiarity with scripture must have come initially from his home. He drew on images from childhood to describe the reign of God. Salt and leaven, lost coins and sheep, stories and meals were household fixtures he invested with new meaning. He may have remembered Joseph's lathes and the smell of wood chips when he met the women along the way to Calvary: "For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?" (Luke 23:31).

3. Let there be story

The paramount reason for teaching through story is that the Judeo-Christian tradition contains some doozies. Just for starters, consider David on his rooftop drooling over Bathsheba as she emerged, tingling and tawny from her bath. Lazarus, lurching from the tomb, layered in graveclothes like an onion in papery skins. Or the child's loaves and fishes that multiplied and multiplied, until 5,000 bellies were full.

Children are no dummies. Their radar is set for the interesting stuff. As writer Eudora Welty explains, "Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole."

In the religious sphere, the high holy days are launched by a question from the youngest child. "Why is this night different from all other nights?" he or she asks and begins a process that tunnels down the ages. The answer comes in story, words sculpted over the Easter Vigil bonfire to tell our origin and exodus. With each step we take into story, the story enters us.

We are learning from the people of the Third World how to become participants in, rather than spectators of, scriptural stories. Nicaraguan peasants know exactly what it means to be arrested at night for no reason, as jesus was. A Maryknoll catechist once told Salvadoran women: "Mary's child was tortured - like your children. Mary's child was innocent - like your children. Mary's child was killed - like your children." "No - it's different," an old woman interrupted. "She got her child back."

Jesus set the precedent for teaching through storytelling. Instead of analyzing the dysfunctional family, he told the parable of the prodigal son. Instead of preaching about compassion, he told of thugs attacking a traveler on the road to Jericho and a Samaritan finding him, bruised and abandoned. If we want to teach our children as Jesus did, we'll cast the doctrine of divine providence in poetic images: flowers of the field, birds of the air.

My children will have plenty of time later in life to study theology, and when they are older I'll encourage them to learn and admire that awesome intellectual structure. But as a survivor of the Baltimore Catechism (memorize it or die of embarrassment), I can attest to the lack of ownership in that approach. Giving children rigidly formulated doctrine invites only one cognitive response: learn it.

To tell children stories invites them to enter the mystery, bringing their gifts of imagination and sensitivity. Then they can form a relationship with God that is more than intellectual, a unity with God that is bone-deep.

4. Let there be celebration

Children's days can be dull. Repeatedly, they follow the same orbit of school, playground, and home. Not that stability isn't important, but everyone likes variety in the secure routine.

Surely that's one of the fringe benefits of the Catholic tradition. The church year is rich in seasons and cycles - a balance of feasts and fasts, highs and lows. There is almost always something to celebrate. As the mystic Hildegard of Bingen wrote in the 14th century, "Be not lax in celebrating. Be not lazy in the festive service of God. Be ablaze with enthusiasm."

The original matrix for celebration is the home, where the child first blows out the candles on the birthday cake. Within that context, a religious sense develops. In church, the child may stare at the backs of heads and hear incomprehensible language. At home, the translation can occur.

For example, we recently returned from a Mass where my youngest daughter was paralyzed by boredom. At home, she protested loudly. So my older daughter and I improvised around the day's gospel - the wedding feast of Cana. We three created a wedding album for the Cana couple by drawing pictures and placing them on extra pages from a photo album. That prompted the youngest to ask about Mom and Dad's wedding album, so we explored those pictures of us - looking younger and slimmer!

We concluded by drawing water jars on construction paper, then listing our concerns on them. "These are areas where we need the touch of Jesus to turn water into wine," I explained. We listed poverty, war, child abuse, AIDS, and other concerns on the jar-shaped papers then pasted them onto empty milk jugs. With a presider's graceful motion, our 10-year-old then lifted her jug to God in prayer. Humbly, we all followed suit.

Over the centuries, the church has developed a language of ritual that can communicate more clearly than words. As we bless and anoint our children, feed them at the eucharistic table, hug them at the kiss of peace, join hands with them for the Our Father, we speak a profound message of affirmation and belonging, often with few words. We are speaking on the level of the imagination, which, as every advertising mogul knows, stays in memory long after verbiage is forgotten.

However, we must help the child make connections between the ritual and the lived reality. Other-wise, we run the risk of merely passing on a collection of empty gestures. Thus Eucharist doesn't make much sense if we haven't eaten together, sharing jokes and disasters, disappointments and triumphs. The Paschal Mystery of dying and rising takes on meaning when we share our joys as well as sorrows.

Around our kitchen tables, failure and fruitfulness can sit close enough to pass the potato salad. One child is fretting over a bad grade; another exults in a soccer goal. One recites her lines in the play while another peels her sunburn. We gather all this when we pray: "Father, accept this offering from your whole family.... Let it become for us the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, your only Son, our Lord."

5. Let there be laughter

Parenting is often stressful, and taking on religious education may seem like an impossible burden. If we take ourselves too seriously, we look like Robert De Niro in "The Mission," lumbering up a cliff, dragging the heavy, clanking baggage of penance. That kind of self-indulgence is its own reward.

An image I like better is my friend Margie. Her son Kevin was dawdling over breakfast one morning and asked, "Do you like the pope?" Carefully choosing her words, Margie explained that the pope had done many fine things, but that she didn't personally agree with everything he said. She was hurrying to get to work, but tried to nuance her position, then invite Kevin's response. He looked at her puzzled as he replied, "I don't like the pope in my orange juice." After all that, Kevin had been commenting on pulp.

People with pious lives, prune faces, and perfectly folded hands make me nervous. From my children I have learned how play can be prayer. A child has the natural gifts of simplicity, presence, and wonder that adult contemplatives work hard to develop. Praise of the Lord does not always leap easily to adult lips. Children may not use religious jargon, but they can admire God's handiwork in the perfectly pitched baseball, a muddy lip tip, a hummingbird, or a sloppy kiss.

When I companion them best, I act like Miriam playing her tambourine, David dancing before the ark, or the spirit of creation: "I wash is delight, playing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race" (Prov. 8:30).

Thomas Merton wrote, "What is serious to [people] is often very trivial in the sight of God. What in God might appear to us as play' is perhaps what [God] takes most seriously. At any rate the Lord plays . . . in the garden of creation, and if we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear [God's] call and follow in the mysterious, cosmic dance."

6. Let it be experiential

My college-aged daughter recently took a course on Japan in which she learned more about that country than she ever thought possible. The secret lay in the intensity: total immersion in the Japanese culture. Students sat on the floor in a circle around the tatami mat where ikebana was displayed. They made topographical maps out of play dough, created origami boxes, ate Japanese snacks, painted scrolls, and participated in a tea ceremony. How I wished her religious education had been this experiential!

The best catechesis is also a hands-on affair. Contrast these scenes, for instance. One group of children wiggles, squirms, and yawns throughout a boring lecture on the Eucharist. Another group kneads bread dough and pops it in the oven before hearing the story of Jesus feeding 5,000. They munch fish crackers as they choose an activity: making fish from paper plates or role-playing the miracle.

The session concludes as the bread emerges from the oven, hot and fragrant. Which group remembers Jesus providing abundantly for all, because the story was etched on every sense? Which group wants to come back next week?

No guy falls in love with a girl's femur; no woman marries a man because he's functional. Perhaps we should frame religious education in the poetic language of falling in love, rather than the academic jargon of mastering subject matter. Then our children would never "graduate." Their relationship with Christ and his church might last a lifetime.

7. Let there be rest

Just as God rested on the last day of creation, let's leave ample room to breathe, sufficient white space to frame the message. Contemporary kids are often overscheduled with soccer practice, piano lessons, and Scout meetings. To nurture their spiritual lives, we must allow them quiet time for doing nothing. Although this apparent idleness runs counter to a workaholic culture, it contains a biblical wisdom: while the farmer seems to do nothing, the seed grows and sprouts (James 5:7-8).

Simply staring out the window can bring a child a peace that provides ballast against more turbulent times. In silence is a deep strength that children can never tap if they have not grown comfortable with the quiet of radio and TV turned off. A retreat director once told toddlers to enter their "heart rooms" in silence, so they could listen to Jesus. Not bad advice for adults, who strain to hear his voice despite cluttered calendars and frantic schedules.

Saint Therese of Lisieux confesses in her autobiography that she had slept through her prayers for seven years running. She adds, "Well, I am not desolate. I remember that little children are as pleasing to their parents when they are asleep as well as when they are wide awake." (Maybe more so!) When one of the desert fathers was asked what to do about people dozing at prayer, he replied that he simply settled the sleeper's head in his own lap.

Psalm 131 describes the creature resting in the Creator, intimate and secure as a child in a mother's lap:

It is enough for me to keep my soul still and quiet, like a child in its mother's arms, as content as a child that has been weaned.

We can overhear that deep sigh of contentment as God looked over creation and found it good. We can hear the same satisfied sigh as our children rest in the God they long for, the God who made them.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Claretian Publications
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:teaching children about God through example, sharing, and storytelling
Author:Coffey, Kathy
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:May 1, 1996
Words:2839
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